Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Director: Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris, Alex Sims
Reviewer: Sharon MacDonald-Armitage
The National Theatre’s phenomenal touring production of War Horse which opened last night at Southampton’s Mayflower is a story that many people are aware of either through Michael Morpurgo’s book or the Stephen Spielberg film. However, nothing quite prepares you for seeing this show live on stage. This production takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotion through the horrors and devastation of WWI.
Despite this story having a backdrop of the war, the play is far more than just another war story; it is a story of love, friendship and hope and the binding relationship of one man and his horse Joey. Not told from any side’s viewpoint nor being judgemental, the audience see events unravel across the divide that war brings. On the one hand we are given an extremely personal perspective of Albert Narracott, played superbly by Lee Armstrong, who presents us with a character that develops both physically and emotionally as the war and the emotional drive to find his horse Joey in the battlefields unfolds. Yet on the other we also see Hauptmann Friedrich Muller, played by Martin Wenner, the German officer who shows compassion and love for the horses he comes across, treating them with kindness and concern. It is Joey the horse that links these characters and touches the heart of those who come across him, not to mention the audience watching as the play unfolds.
Handspring Puppet Company are nothing less than genius in their representation of the animals on stage, never once do you disbelieve the horses are not real. From the funny little goose that bosses anyone that enters the farm yard to the charging horses that run into battle; the flap of a wing, the twitch of an ear and the exhausting gasps for breath are all so real you forget there are puppeteers controlling these magnificent creatures. This is theatre at its very best and if the thought of seeing a “puppet show” fills you with dread, fear not as this is puppetry that will astound and amaze you. The ingenuity that has gone into making these puppets have a life of their own is indescribable and something you have to experience yourself to understand. Make no bones about it Joey and Topthorn are the stars of this show and despite the fabulous performances from an extremely strong cast it is the horses you will be talking about when you leave the theatre.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the lighting and scenery which add to the stark atmosphere, something which is particularly emotional in the battle scenes. The broken tree stumps highlight the devastation of war and there are a number of particularly poignant moments: when you see soldiers emerge from the battlefield smoke only to be picked off and killed by the enemy, when Albert’s friend David, played by Alex Moran dies in his arms and when the horses worked to death collapse through sheer exhaustion, that brings home the realities of this war. Artist Rae Smith provides the drawings for this show which compliments the set, adds to the atmosphere of the era and moves the narrative forward.
To use the phrase “tugs on the heartstrings” might seem rather sentimental but it is in fact extremely apt where this show is concerned. Bring your tissues in preparation to wipe your eyes as you would have to be extremely hard-hearted not to be moved by such a stunning show. This is more than fabulous night out.
Photo byEllie Kurttz | War Horse is on tour and runs until Saturday 15th March 2014 at the Mayflower